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(Merrily) We Roll Along.

It’s hard to watch shows when you’re an actor. Not just because of our conflicting schedules, or our tendency to scrutinise every last moment, but also because we know how it all works.

While others see sweeping set-changes, streaking magically, majestically across the stage, we see the nuts and bolts holding it together and the grunting, sweating crew breaking their backs to make it happen. We can’t help it. When the magician reveals his tricks, the magic is gone forever.

It’s incredibly rare, therefore, that I see a show that really grips me. But it does happen. One such show was ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, a production which boasts the most five-star reviews in West End history and if you’re not overly picky about the source, (David Hunter, The Daily Dave) you can add mine to the batch.

Following the struggles and successes of the show’s three creative protagonists struck me so powerfully that the production has stayed with me ever since.

One scene, somewhere in Act Two, saw the characters performing their own cabaret in a small nightclub, long before they found success in their various fields. The onstage crowd is sparse at best and the reception less than enthusiastic, but the performance is electric. It struck me how happy they were, performing to no one, but full of hope and dreaming of adventures ahead. Over the course of the show, this is perhaps their happiest time.

My mind wandered to Warrington and the months before 'One Man Two Guvnors’ brought me to London and delivered my West End debut. I was scratching around trying to make a few quid without having to do anything too soul-destroying. After short stints working at The London Bridge (a pub) and Puma (the seventh circle of Hell), I decided to put my efforts into something slightly more enjoyable and set up an Open Mic Night with my mate Danny.

Once a week we would rock up to this local bar and play music. We played quirky little covers and a load of our own songs. No one clapped. No one cared to be honest and I yearned for so much more. But it was glorious. Unremarkably wonderful. For a few short hours each week, I sat with my best mate and played music. We made just fifty quid each, ten of which was immediately reserved for a Chinese.

Salt and Pepper Chips.
Salt and Pepper Crispy Lamb.
And a Char Sui Bun for me.

On the all too rare occasions I get to visit home, a trip to Wok2Go is pitched unreasonably high on my to do list. It is the greatest Chinese takeaway of all time and my passion for their menu is unrivalled. My mate Craig says I literally make it taste better. My love for Wok2Go is infectious, people.

And that’s how much I miss the local Chinese. Can you even comprehend how much I miss playing music with my best mate?!

I can’t tell you what joy I felt singing songs in that crappy bar to those disinterested customers on those wet Wednesdays in Warrington. Playing music with Danny is one of my all time favourite things to do. I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager and I would gladly move him into my spare room if it meant we could do it more often.

Not to trivialise that last statement, but I would also do the same for the chefs at Wok2Go.

Now, I’m not saying I was happier back then, I’m not saying I wish I’d shunned the West End and stayed in Warrington. If I had, I’m sure Wok2Go would have eventually lost it’s shine and those less than interested bar-dwellers would have really started to tick me off. And you do NOT want to see me when I’m ticked off. I’m almost mean.

Equally, I’m not saying let’s all stay where we are and never wish for more in fear that we’ll miss what we once had. What I’m saying is…

Enjoy the journey, my friends.

If you’re the twenty-something working at Puma, the dreamer playing songs in a bar, the actor sitting in seat D22 holding up a sodding humous sandwich - enjoy the ride. Because I’m telling you now, there are people you’ll miss, there are places you’ll yearn for and there are Char Sui Buns that just won’t taste the same anywhere else.

Enjoy the journey, my friends.

The Secrets of Seat D22

Facebook has kindly reminded me that today marks five years since the final performance of ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ at The Adelphi Theatre. It’s a production I think of often during my nightly adventures in Kinky Boots, taking place as it did in the very same theatre.

‘Guvnors’ (because all show names must be shortened when trying to sound actor-y) was the show that brought me to London. Until that point, I had been beavering away up north, running open mic nights and travelling down for auditions. Not a bad little life. However, things change when your Young Persons Railcard expires - your world and your wallet will never be the same again. Suddenly I was desperate to move to London and ‘Guvs’ allowed me to do it. In some style too.

After a stint at the National Theatre, we briefly toured the UK before landing in The West End for a limited run at The Adelphi Theatre. The show was magnificent. I was a less than tiny cog in that monstrous machine, understudying one of the Guvnors and playing a myriad of tiny roles straight out of a fancy dress shop. My fully rounded and realised performances as 'Policeman’ and 'Vicar’ weren’t often mentioned in the five star reviews, but surely their presence alone lifted the production to those heady heights?

My other role within the show was strictly top secret. Only now do I finally feel able to lift the lid on the show’s mysterious tricks, mainly because it closed many years ago, but also because I suspect no one will read this blog.

Except you, I knew you’d come.

Each night, me or fellow-understudy Paul, would be handed a ticket for the show, wander in the front doors and plonk ourselves down in seat D22 to watch the first act of 'One Man, Two Guvnors’. We’d sit there and diligently giggle/guffaw at the show’s many gags despite the fact we were hearing them for the hundredth time and then when the big moment came, we’d reach into our backpacks and pull out a sandwich…

At a certain point in each show, deep into the first act, we would offer James Corden a nice sarnie before being lovingly torn apart by the man himself. He’d riff on the shock of being interrupted by an 'audience member’ before finally asking,

“What kind of sandwich is it?”
“Humous” I’d reply.
“HUMOUS?!”

The crowd goes wild. James collapses in a heap. My neighbouring theatre-goers laugh/cower/flick suspiciously through the programme to see if I’m photographed in it (I am) and the show continues. I would watch the rest of the act, under scrutiny from the (now definitely suspicious) audience members around me and then disappear to my dressing room for the interval.

I did that several hundred times.

It really was a fantastic show, but as you can imagine, it became fairly predictable after the fiftieth viewing. Eventually the changes, the shifts, the anomalies became the moments of interest. Knowing the various, hard-to-spot mistakes, the backstage love-triangles and bubbling disputes made for interesting viewing, but it was the audience who offered the most fascinating curveballs.

On several occasions, people from as high up as the upper circle would hurl sandwiches onto the stage before I could even chip in, splattering cheese and ham across several metres of staging. But my absolute favourite was the man who unwittingly followed the entire script, word for word, as he offered James a sandwich and when asked what type it was, “Humous!” was his reply. In that moment, he effectively robbed me of my Act One responsibilities and gave me the evening off.

A glance from James said it all and I quietly wriggled past my neighbours, returning to my dressing room. What a glorious forty-minute interval that was. I often wondered as the run progressed if my unknowing understudy would return to give me another evening off.

He never did.

I miss him.

Act Two saw me appear ever-so-briefly as a policeman to get punched in the face by an OAP. It was that kind of show. Then I’d bow, standing behind the principal cast and wondering what it must be like to be James, standing front and centre receiving that rapturous applause from the sell out audiences.

Now I know.

Five years since our final bow with 'One Man, Two Guvnors and a Policeman’ (my preferred title), I am bowing night after night back at The Adelphi. I am in the extremely privileged position of standing front and centre alongside Matt Henry and my glorious cast mates as the audience shows their appreciation for this life-affirming and ever so Kinky show. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

Those in the know (ie those who have just read this blog) will notice the person sat in D22 usually gets a smile from me as we strut off stage. I have warmed that seat many many times, wishing I was stood on the stage and whenever I feel down or tired, unwell or irritated, I think of seat D22 and that plucky little scamp (me, aged 26) sitting there, wishing for a few more lines. It’s been a wild ride since then, but one I have tried to cherish with every step.

What's Next?

Ah, the dreaded question, capable of reducing the most eloquent actor to a mumbling, quivering mess. Occasionally fate will smile upon you and, with the knowledge that your next job is safely lined up, you can thrust out your chest and announce your success proudly. Often though, in darker times, you’re lumbered with an empty diary and a massive tax bill and you spend your time thinking up nonchalant responses while panicking that you’ll never work again. I’ve experienced both these things and everything in between. The truth of the matter is, sometimes you’ll have the answer, sometimes you won’t, sometimes you’ll be happy with this, sometimes you won’t.

But this time around I’ve found the question slightly more difficult. Not because I’m crippled with fear or pouring with sweat at the fact I’ve got nothing in the diary, but because it opens up a much bigger question for me,

“What do you do when all your dreams come true?”

To play a lead in The West End has been the realisation of a long standing dream of mine and to do it with ‘Once’, a show that I hold in the highest regard, is really quite astonishing. Glen Hansard’s music is engrained in me. We all have those albums in our minds, ones that found you at the perfect moment and became the soundtrack to your life. For me, my time at LIPA is Jason Mraz’s 'Waiting For My Rocket to Come’, it brings back memories of student accommodation, late night house parties and early morning dance classes. My two years in Sixth Form belong to Train’s 'Drops of Jupiter’ and my early twenties belong completely to 'Once’.

In a unprecedented stroke of luck for yours truly, a group of people woke up one morning and decided to make Once into a musical and by doing so gave me the chance to sing these incredible songs time and time again on the West End stage. I mean, how do you follow that?

Previously when confronted with “Whats Next?”, I could speak of my dream to play a West End lead and, if probed further, discuss my huge desire to play Guy in Once. Now it becomes much more difficult because the fact is, everything I wanted to achieve just happened!

This isn’t to say I’m calling it a day. I have plenty of ideas. There will be other shows, other projects that capture my imagination, but for now my only plan is to reflect; reflect on the wonderful journey I experienced through this show and on the fantastic people I was able to work with and call my friends. I will make decisions, hopefully wise ones, but first I’ll take some time to see which direction I want to be pointed in. Maybe I’ll focus on projects away from acting, maybe it’ll be about starting a family or buying a house, it’ll certainly be about planning a wedding!

I will see family and friends and cook for Tara and write songs and take photos and walk the dog and shuffle around in slippers and, at some point down the line, accept a job. What it will be, I have no idea and for now, I’m happy to wait and see.

The time has come to discover What’s Next and perhaps unearth a brand new dream in the process.

When’s Jason Mraz the Musical coming out anyway?

With love,

DH. x

PHOTO: An audience member captures my very first curtain call as Guy, exactly one year a go today.

*****


A year a go today and after just two weeks of rehearsals, a very clammy David Hunter stepped nervously onstage to play Guy for the very first time. This meant the realisation of a long standing dream of mine and the beginning of a journey which would see me fulfil an even bigger one; playing this magnificent role Full Time.

I’d spent the previous few days trying to come to terms with the realities of being a Standby. This was a whole new experience for me and a decision I was still trying to rationalise. Rather than performing every night, I’d be sat backstage waiting for opportunities. I knew these opportunities would come but when and how often, I had no idea. August the 12th 2013 was supposed to be about adjusting to this new routine, about finding my feet backstage. What actually happened was totally unexpected, completely wonderful and very, very sweaty.

The call came through around lunchtime. I thought it was a joke. There can’t be many occasions where a Standby has been thrust into action on his very first day. The fact of the matter was, I hadn’t even met some of the cast by this point and a few hours later I would be expected to lead them out in front of a thousand people.

I spent the day calmly [frantically] looking over my lines, whilst focussing [crying] and preparing for the task ahead [wondering if I could run away]

And then, before I knew it, we’d begun.

I remember the sweat.

Not a lot else, just the sweat.

I didn’t realise you could sweat from your fingertips.

Or the back of your knees.

But there I was.

Sweating.

And generally doing everything I was meant to be doing.

(I think)

My girlfriend assures me it was wonderful, but I have very little recollection of what actually happened that night. Nothing went wrong, I know that much. I said all my words, mostly in the right order, and no one died. Which makes for an extremely successful debut if you ask me.

And a year later, after numerous performances as a Standby and many, many more since I took on my dream role Full Time, I still look back on that night, and the week of performances that followed, with real pride.

At the time it was petrifying, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes it was a shock, horrifying in fact, but more than anything it was thrilling and exciting and without a doubt very, VERY sweaty.

PRESS RELEASE
(from The Stage)

David Hunter, a finalist in ITV’s Superstar series, is to lead the cast of the West End musical Once from May 12.

Hunter, who joined the production to understudy the role of Guy in July last year, will be joined by Jill Winternitz. She will play Girl, replacing Zrinka Cvitesic, who has been with the musical since it opened. Winternitz’s credits include playing Baby in the West End production of Dirty Dancing.

Hunter, whose credits include One Man, Two Guvnors and Seussical, replaces Arthur Darvill, who joined the show in March, having played the role on Broadway.

Directed by John Tiffany, the West End production of Once opened in April 2013 and is currently booking at the Phoenix Theatre to July 4, 2015.

From May 12 Hunter and Winternitz are joined by Fiona Bruce, Jamie Cameron, Mark Carlisle, Matthew Ganley, Mathew Hamper, Daniel Healy, Loren O’Dair, Miria Parvin, Tim Prottey-Jones and Jez Unwin.

ONE YEAR ON

‘Superstar’, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Jesus, ended one year a go today with Ben Forster winning the role and the rest of the live finalists contemplating what the future might hold.

We had become highly skilled at the art of speculation, after several long months wondering who would progress in the competition. Some contestants swaggered confidently around Superstar Island claiming the Producers had already chosen their finalists and everything else was just for show. Many claimed they had inside information. “My friend knows the Producer” claimed one, “Tim Minchin is my Godfather” replies another. One guy says he walks Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dog every weekend and swears his little Jack Russell winked at him last week. So he’s a shoe in.

Others, myself included, pottered about the place is a constant state of mild terror, absorbing the less outrageous speculation and waiting for the next challenge. My aim, like many others, was to progress to the live finals or at least find myself eliminated in such a way that none of my friends would notice.

“I’m sorry Dave” Andrew would whisper, “you haven’t made it to the next round. Just sneak out this way and no one will batter an eyelid”

The rumours rattled on through our intensive time in the Jesus House. Eleven lads living, eating, working and competing together 24/7 for six weeks. Somehow we managed to have a little fun along the way (I won at LaserQuest, suckers!) and before long this bizarre lifestyle became the norm. The unmanageably high adrenaline levels now felt run of the mill and bubbled on throughout the process and into the live shows.

Wake up, shower, dress, taxi, eat.
Warm up, sound check, rehearsal, interview, eat.
Wardrobe, hair, make up, rehearsal, eat.

And then we’re live.

In front of friends, family, judges and an audience of millions waiting at home.

And it was brilliant.

Yes, it was stressful, an emotional rollercoaster, but after the event, with no more speculation or stress, you look back and realise. You just did an incredible thing.

It’s a numbing feeling leaving that adrenaline fuelled environment after so long. My mum recalls how quiet I was after it ended. I remember feeling bored. Where was the circus? The lights, the excitement, the noise. Where did it all go?

Nothing fazed me. Nothing interested me. Nothing compared to those huge highs and lows of excitement and pressure. Everything just seemed normal. Dull.

It took me a good few weeks to readjust to normality. It was a short holiday with my best friend that sorted me out. Hearing your mate break wind in your tiny shared bedroom soon brings you crashing back down to earth. Thanks Dan.

The year since has been a fantastic one. The challenge, I believe, when leaving that sort of show is to define yourself without it. Who do you want to be? How do you want to be perceived? I shied away from certain opportunities (you’d be surprised) and tried to be brave in turning down big money offers (you’d be stunned!) in favour of work I believed in.

I’ve aimed to send out a strong, positive image, whether that be because of the show, the cast, the theatre or a combination of all three. This hasn’t always been a plan that has lined my pockets (believe me!), but it’s led me to some wonderful shows, alongside some incredible performers. This was particularly evident in The Hired Man, which for me represented a lot of what I’d hoped for when leaving Superstar; a fantastic role in a beautiful show, alongside one of Britain’s finest Musical Theatre actors. By the end of our run at The Curve Theatre, we were enjoying standing ovations from full houses every night. “This” I thought, “is what it’s all about”.

And so a year that has seen me leap from Tommy to Seussical to My Land’s Shore to The Hired Man is ending with the news that I’ll be joining the West End cast of Once at the Phoenix Theatre as standby 'Guy’, a show and a role that I placed firmly at the top of my 'to-dream’ list many moons ago. I’ll have to wait for my opportunities to take to the stage (time to start speculating again) but when the time comes, what a thrill it will be.

Thanks for reading everyone. Especially you, Grandpa. x

Whatsonstage
★★★★★
The Guardian
★★★★
The Public Reviews
★★★★★
The Sunday Express
★★★★

Whatsonstage
“A sparkling production”
“David Hunter shines as the once idealistic and cheerful John”
“Highly recommended but don’t forget to take some tissues!”

The Guardian
“Director Daniel Buckroyd’s fine revival is performed with real verve by a cast of actor-musicians”

The Public Reviews
“Simply perfect”
“The pair sing beautifully, Atherton showcasing immense vocal power tempered with control, while Hunter gives his John both a simmering anger but also a vulnerability”
“Buckroyd’s production doesn’t put a foot wrong and delivers a real emotional punch.”

The Sunday Express
“Thrilling intensity and elegant simplicity”
“There’s musicality and muscularity from a superb ensemble”

The Stage
“The splendid 13-strong community-like ensemble of actor/musicians boasts a rich vocal end-product of West End proportions”

Once upon a Mormon :

the battle of the Broadway transfer.

I was interested this afternoon to read a host of 3 and 4 star reviews for Book of Mormon, the American juggernaut that recently transferred to The West End after incredible success on Broadway. Their advertising campaign has been hugely impressive. Posters lined the walls of every tube station and images were splattered across the front covers of newspapers long before the cast was announced and as a result the show is sold out for months.

My stagey twitter feed is full of hype for the show with glowing praise from everyone, but the critics have spoken and I’m yet to read a five star review.

There’s no shame in that, I’ve seen spectacular shows that only achieved four stars and I’m sure Mormon is a fantastic show, one that I’m very excited to see. But reading the reviews I started to question what outside factors might have affected the critics. Could the huge hype for this show persuade some reviewers to take a more negative view point to offer an alternate opinion, or simply to stand out amongst the other glowing reviews?

My questioning is more than likely a result of the fact that I’m staring down the barrel of a press night of our very own for The Hired Man and wondering what a group of seasoned theatre critics will make of our show.

Of course, we tell ourselves not to care, that we shouldn’t focus on reviews good or bad, but it’s difficult to ignore them altogether. At their best, reviews can be a great way to drive a production forward, perhaps instilling the cast with a confidence that allows them to commit to their performances in a whole new way.

That was certainly the case with Seussical, a show that I loved but feared no one else would. After a string of positive reviews (never achieving five stars, i might add) the confidence from within the cast and the level of performance grew and grew. I suspect that your average theatre-goer wouldn’t spot this shift in confidence, but the feeling within us was significant. Positive reviews can take away that niggling doubt and give you a sense that what you’re doing in really working for your audience.

Real feedback is hard to come by. It’s hard to find a reliable source. Of course your mum will love it and even your most hard-to-please friends will try to be as positive as possible, but critics owe you nothing. They watch the show, you hope, through totally unbiased eyes and review it accordingly. They don’t owe you, or your show, anything. And that’s as scary as it is necessary.

So has the Book of Mormon hype driven the reviewers to shy away from awarding the full five stars?

In Stark contrast to Mormon’s advertising campaign, ‘Once’ has sneaked into The West End practicality unnoticed and I’ll be watching with interest to see what this show is awarded.

Where Mormon is a self professed big hitter, with an advertising budget to match, Once has been almost apologetic in it’s approach. Posters for the show have only just begun to spring up in tube stations and as a result you can still buy tickets here, there and everywhere for this Broadway smash, and I urge you to do so before the reviews make this show a sell out.

I’m happy to predict, fairly confidently, that Once will receive five stars across the board and I haven’t even seen it! Us Brits love an underdog and while Book of Mormon has spent the last six months telling us how bloody wonderful it is, Once has shuffled in the back door, hood up, guitar on it’s back, happy to be the dark horse in this competition for best Broadway transfer. They are the surprise package and I can’t help but think that the critics will want to give them a fantastic write up, knowing that they need the reviews to fill the theatre.

Just like the film, Once the musical is quietly breaking hearts outside of the mainstream public eye, but i suspect that’s about to change. When the reviews hit the papers and the buzz begins to build, Once will be the West End hit it deserves to be.

If you can’t get to the show anytime soon, buy yourself the original film and prepare to fall in love with a beautiful movie as well as an incredible song-writer in Glen Hansard. It grabbed me a number of years a go and if anyone asks what my favourite movie is, I’ll always reply “Once”. Not only because it sounds cooler than saying “Back to the Future Two”, but also because it means I might introduce someone new to this incredible movie. A genuine cult classic.

Make sure you catch Once AND Book of Mormon if you can sniff out a ticket. Both, I’m sure, are fantastic shows and ones I’ll be aching to see once I’m back in London.

For now though, I’ll bid you farewell. I have my own press night to focus on next week and I’d best stop speculating before I drive myself mad. Check back soon for a blog featuring Hired Man reviews and some gorgeous production photographs. I’ve got a feeling this will become a very special show to me.

Take care one and all. Be happy. x

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